Thursday, May 21, 2009

Because I Want to Know

Yesterday was Matsu's birthday, I was told today after asking my Chinese colleagues about the craziness around our neighborhood.

Eight Generals 6, originally uploaded by Boyznberry.

(Click on this photo to see more photos from Matsu's birthday parade.)

Rather than rely on bits and pieces of information I had heard before from Christian colleagues from before, I've decided to ask my Buddhist and Taoist colleagues whenever I have questions. Not that I might always get an accurate answer, I know. Even if you'd ask a handful of Christians about certain practices or beliefs, you might get contradicting answers.

Hence, I ask questions, and I refer to this book I bought called, Private Prayers and Public Parades: Exploring the Religious Life of Taipei, which has been very insightful, to say the least.

I ask, because I want to understand.

And I ask because, in the last three years, I've learned to ask far more questions and listening more.

Not that I don't desperately want to engage in further conversation with some of these friends! Out of respect for the people, and out of a desire to know first what they believe, I will listen.

And so yesterday, I was sitting in an office at school, working on a project for one of the departments. A dozen or so Chinese colleagues sat down for lunch at the table where I was working. During a lull in their conversation, I politely said, "Xing wen..."

In other words, "May I ask..."

And were they keen to tell me all about the day.

"It's Matsu's birthday," the seemingly-most-knowlegable and possibly-most-devout among them explained. She explained that the parade was to honor Matsu, and to pray for the neighborhood.

The ladies continued to talk among themselves about some of the recent events in Taiwan regarding honoring gods. I listened on, trying hard not to let my face show how utterly bizarre I think the practices are. For example, due to the H1N1 epidemic, worshipers at one temple in Taiwan dressed their gods with face masks.

"So, if you don't want H1N1, do you go to pray at that temple?" I asked.

The explained that that was not the case. "We are just protecting our god," one colleague explained proudly.

My eyes must've given away that I thought it's pretty sad when humans have to protect their gods against viruses. "Actually," she said, "our gods protect us, so we also show them respect by protecting them. It's the same as when we take them food."

"So who exactly is Matsu," I asked another colleague later in the afternoon, when the crowd had left and she came to sit down for lunch. I had been told earlier that she was one of the most knowledgable persons about Taoism.

My colleague proceeded to tell me about Lin Mo, a girl who lived long, long ago in China. She was a very good girl, and she didn't get married. One day, her father, a fisherman, drowned, and she tried to help him. "After that, the god said she should be a god."

"Which god?" I asked inquisitively.

"A fortune teller."

"So when did she change from Lin Mo to Matsu?"

"When she became a god. Later, her sisters also became gods. Everyone can pray to them, but fishermen really pray to Matsu and her sisters. In fact, it is said that when the waters are rough and your boat is in danger of capsizing, if you see the ghost of Matsu, you have peace that everything will be fine."


Matsu herself wasn't carried down our streets yesterday, though. Those were other gods, smaller gods. All came out to celebrate Matsu's birthday, because she is considered the queen of heaven.


From my book on Taiwan's religious practices, I also learned that Lin Mo was born around 960. Either way, she died at age 28. The book explains that the incident of saving her father (or it could've been her brothers) didn't really occur, but that it happened during a dream or a trance. Her ghost is said to have saved a high-ranking official in 1122, and hence she was promoted to Queen of Heaven. However, this promotion may have been a political move during the Yuan dynasty to win the allegiance of the coastal peoples. Within the temples that have her statue, she is usually flanked by two demons called "Ears that Hear the Wind" and "Thousand-Mile Eyes," both who were hapless suitors...

What I do not understand yet is how the people here have such a fascination with a religion that has openly-evil components.

Matsu's suitors, for example, are flat-out called demons. And they're in the temples.

And when you look at the photos, the "Eight Generals" in particular are downright scary! As are many of the other rituals which I'm sure I'll get to share about as time goes by.

Last month in China, I gained some invaluable insights on why/when the Chinese switched from a nation called "God's country" to referring to themselves as "Descendants of the Dragon." I'll share more upon completion of my China paper, but for now, the connection with the events surrounding Matsu's birthday is the following. I'll quote it directly from C.K. Thong's excellent text on Chinese history, Faith of Our Fathers: God in Ancient China (p. 267):

"Satan's tactic, ever since his rebellion, has been to try to get to every human being to do his will instead of God's. He is an adversary of the person and the purposes of God and seeks to usurp God's position. His schemes are wonderfully planned and executed; he does not work haphazardly. His ways are subtle. To deceive mankind, he often appears attractive. His aim, however, is to hold us captive to sin and to destroy us. ... The central characteristic of his modus operandi is fear, not love. He uses counterfeits, such as lust instead of love. While God draws people to Himself with His unfailing love, Satan uses deception coupled with fear to gain control over mankind."

I worship this God who sent His Son Jesus to redeem us from the consequences of sin.

I worship Jesus who came to earth as a human, yet was sinless, performed miracles, died on the cross, and conquered death by raising from the dead.*

I worship him for his love and for the hope I find in him. Not out of fear or superstition of what may happen if I don't please him. Nor because of religious bondage. I worship him out of love, because he loved us first.

My desire is to continue sharing this hope, freedom, love, forgiveness and meaning we can find in Christ with my neighbors.

But for now, I'll listen and learn. So that I'll know what my friends believe when I do engage in conversations with them.

* Interestingly, a "major solar and lunar eclipse" was recorded by Chinese imperial astronomers in A.D. 31, the year of the death of Jesus. They also recorded a strange halo in the sky three days later. Fascinating, isn't it??


  1. Could I ask where you bought/got the book _Private Prayers and Public Parades: Exploring the Religious Life of Taipei_?

    Sounds like a very good resource.

  2. I bought it at the GIO book store in Taipei City Hall. It's only about NTD200, whereas it's listed on Amazon for $99, used. Someone's trying to make a quick buck!

  3. Thanks for taking the time to answer . . . next time I'm in Taipei I'm going to have to make sure I stop by there and try to get one!! :)